Charlotte's DNA backlog slows effort to solve crimes

Evidence in robbery and burglary cases awaits testing due to staff shortages, police say. Backlog may ease in a year.

11/16/2008 12:00 AM

11/16/2008 6:43 AM

Evidence with the potential to solve or provide leads on hundreds of burglary and robbery cases awaits DNA testing as Charlotte-Mecklenburg police grapple with a backlog.

Testing is still a top priority for murder, rape and habitual offender cases. And police do have a plan to clear the backlog, but it may take until late next year.

Charlotte police blame a staffing shortage for the problem.

Crime scene evidence in 138 robbery and 443 burglary investigations was awaiting DNA analysis as of Oct. 10, the latest police data available.

Last year, DNA testing led investigators to suspects or new leads in 58 percent of burglary cases and in 18 percent of the robberies that had biological evidence.

In late 2006, two of the four DNA analysts left for personal reasons and the department began an immediate search. But a shortage of analysts around the country slowed the hiring. At a minimum, it takes three to four months to train a new DNA analyst, but the process can stretch up to a year, depending on experience.

Around the time the analysts left, residential burglaries increased and robberies occurred in traditionally low-crime neighborhoods.

Police Deputy Chief Kerr Putney, speaking on the DNA issue, said the lab is in transition: By next year the staff of analysts should grow to six, and the 12-month backlog should start clearing.

Charlotte City Councilman Edwin Peacock III, who serves on the public safety committee, said the backlog is “very problematic” because prompt testing would help solve the crimes, but also help capture some violent criminals in the process.

That's because some property crime offenders also have committed violent crimes, he said. “We have people who are the rapists and murderers who are in that pile (of untested evidence),” said Peacock, who campaigned last year on using innovative approaches to battle crime.

The DNA testing process

With DNA testing, investigators try to match up to 16 genetic markers from biological evidence found at crime scenes with the genetic profiles of convicted felons. Those are collected by law enforcement and stored in state and federal databases. The evidence might be skin cells, blood or saliva, among other possibilities.

A match or hit can help place a suspect at a crime scene. It can also help place the same person at different crime scenes.

Hiring new analysts to run the tests isn't easy. Demand in Iraq and Afghanistan for forensic workers has sapped the available pool. And the on-the-job training is lengthy because properly processing biological evidence can make a case or exonerate a suspect.

Aware of the staffing problem, the City Council recently added – and filled – a new DNA trainee position. It costs about $100,000 a year, including benefits, for the city to employ a qualilfied DNA analyst. Grants will pay for additional analysts, bringing the total to six by 2009, and some upgraded testing equipment.

But the new equipment can't be purchased until next year, and the analysts won't start handling evidence for months.

“It's stressful on you, but when you know there's a light at the end of tunnel, it's better,” said Sheree Enfinger, who was promoted to supervisor but has had to work a full caseload as a DNA analyst.

Charlotte lab dates to 1969

Charlotte has the only N.C. police department with its own crime lab, which it launched in 1969, in part to avoid state testing backlogs.

N.C. law enforcement agencies in other counties send DNA evidence to three state-run crime labs, located in Asheville, Raleigh and Greensboro. The state conducts tests for local law enforcement agencies at no charge, including analysis for robbery and burglary cases, said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper.

There are no backlogs of any crime testing at the state level, Cooper's office said Friday.

Until a few years ago, the state suffered persistent DNA testing backlogs, including 6,000 untested rape kits in 2004 that delayed arrests and prosecutions across the state.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper cleared the backlog by securing federal money and hiring more analysts.

He successfully lobbied for a new state law in 2003 that allows law enforcement to collect DNA from convicted felons for a state database.

The law created a new backlog problem of about 27,000 untested blood samples collected from felons. Cooper ultimately increased his DNA analyst staff to 42 from five. The state DNA bank now has about 150,000 profiles, compared with 18,700 profiles in 2000, his office said Friday.

Advances in DNA testing

DNA testing became a powerful tool in the late 1980s, freeing innocent men from death row and releasing the wrongly accused from prison.

Now it's increasingly a part of routine police work and investigations of everyday crimes. The department has regularly used the testing for robbery and property crime cases for about four years.

The process is much simpler: Analysts used to need blood samples the size of a half dollar or a seminal fluid stain the size of a dime to perform an accurate analysis, which took about 10 weeks.

But now, the Charlotte crime lab's DNA machines can process ever-smaller specimens in 24 hours.

The biological evidence can come from almost anywhere: blood dripped on a broken window; skin cells on a stolen car's steering wheel or saliva left on half-eaten food taken from a victim's refrigerator.

Once genetic material is analyzed, a profile is developed and compared with state databases or entered into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, which contains 6 million offender profiles and more than 225,000 pieces of evidence awaiting a match.

A match doesn't guarantee a conviction. But it can establish a solid suspect. In some cases, suspects are tied to an offense when they are arrested on unrelated charges and for the first time their DNA is run through the state and federal system.

A multi-state effort

Police detective Steve Simono, who has worked in the CMPD for 22 years, said DNA evidence is the most solid. Fingerprints can smudge and for a match in a national database, a fingerprint has to “be pristine,” he said.

DNA testing recently tied a Charlotte break-in to another in New York state, he said.

In the Charlotte case, a burglar bled on glass after smashing a sliding glass door during a break-in at the end of 2006. The blood was analyzed at the Charlotte crime lab, and the DNA logged into the state and federal DNA database.

There was no hit. The case was at a dead end until the spring, when Simono received word there was a match with DNA evidence analyzed from a crime scene in Syracuse, N.Y.

But still no identity for the burglar – not until a 35-year-old suspect was arrested on another charge in Charlotte. He had 24 recorded arrests for various crimes, Simono said.

“The sheriff collected the DNA. It hit on my case and the one in Syracuse,” he said. “I had to do absolutely nothing.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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